It’s late in Terminator Salvation when Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his much-hyped non-appearance. While the movie’s mid-production buzz machinery had hinted at a cameo, the Governator’s busy real-life schedule made that impossible. And so we all have to settle for a digital simulation of the T-800, smooth-faced and odious as he emerges from a chamber seeping ooky steam, his pecs preternaturally wide and Mr. Universey, his gaze intent on his target, John Connor (Christian Bale). His entrance elicits a brief gasp of recognition from the audience, and then, another, as the camera pans up his massive naked body to reveal a chastely blurry blotch where his penis should be.
The shot passes quickly, and it gives pause.
It’s not as if anyone has been hankering for a glimpse of the T-800’s nether parts, actual or prosthetic or CGIed. But still the absence—or maybe just the idea of absence—looms. Most obviously, it alludes to this fourth film’s many lacks, beginning with lack of faith in viewers. Directed by the lead-footed McG, it includes an introductory crawl that recalls the franchise history (when Skynet became self-aware, when it launched its initial attack on humans)—as if anyone reading it doesn’t already know it. The movie is predictably short on subtlety, logic, and even a rudimentary philosophy (this being the first two films’ stock in trade, the impossible time-travel looping that made John and Kyle Reese such a compelling one-two punch). It is just as predictably excessive with regard to action, sometimes flat-out loud and hectic, other times explicitly staged as if rejecting the sheen of the T-1000 (or even Transformers), determined to lay on the grit and grime endless battling for a very sad and angry sort of endurance.
The film, set in 2018, also lacks Sarah Connor or anyone remotely like her. John has a pregnant partner (Bryce Dallas Howard), a doctor who recites some technical language while holding her big belly and looking wide-eyed as she contemplates the all-bad options facing her lover (of course, she also proves that John does have a penis, in case anyone was wondering). Sarah’s action aspect is fulfilled, sort of, by a fighter pilot named Blair (Moon Bloodgood), who actually has to pull off her helmet to expose her long hair (an unnecessarily corny and so comic reveal). Her primary job is to look longingly at the franchise’s newest character, an advanced cyborg whose own discovery that he is a cyborg is traumatic, to say the least.
Sarah’s absence is made especially acute when John begins (again? Hasn’t he heard these before?) to scour her audiotapes for clues as to the machines’ rise and re-rise. Hearing Linda Hamilton’s voice, so familiar and weary, so iconic and inherent to the Terminator business and yet so removed from this particular incarnation. “A person could go crazy thinking about this,” she says, referring to John’s fate-making decision to send his dad into the past to meet his mom. Perhaps, but John doesn’t appear to spend much time thinking about it or going very crazy because of it. He seems pretty clear on what he has to do—locate the skinny-pale-adolescent Kyle (Anton Yelchin) in order to ensure his survival.
This pursuit comprises the bulk of John’s plot, which is, rather awkwardly, only a small piece of the film’s. The larger piece is devoted to Robocop, er, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington). Convicted of murdering two cops, he’s introduced in a cell awaiting his execution. Here meets not with a religious figure but with cancerous Cyberdine doctor Serena (Helena Bonham Carter), who presses him to donate his body to their scientific efforts, he agrees if only he can kiss her, after which he snipes, “So that’s what death tastes like.” In another movie, this expression of combinatory remorse and rage might seem devastating or maybe just a little mean. Here his aggression lands nowhere: her ghastly cadaverous face will end up hovering over his in his post-lethal-injection mind-haze, an angel of death-and-rebirth who sucks up his soul and leaves the rest of us decidedly underwhelmed.
When Marcus reawakens like Stallone in Demolition Man, he doesn’t know he’s a cyborg, even when he displays remarkable Bourne-like skills in grandly edited hand-to-hand combat and oh yes, is able to survive explosions and pretty much direct-hit gunfire. Inadvertently, Marcus befriends Kyle (and his little buddy, a literally mute child named Star [Jadagrace]), then makes it his mission in life to save Kyle when he’s grabbed up by the machines. Thus Marcus and John are on something of a parallel course, though they also clash, John apparently forgetting that he once had a very good cyborg friend in Arnold, and now reciting his hatred of all cyborgs all the time, refusing to imagine Marcus’s capacity to turn against his machine cohorts and makers.
The conflict between Marcus and John takes place mostly off screen, or maybe more accurately, in between screens, as Salvation doggedly lays out each man’s trajectory toward Kyle (that this pretty young boy is their mutual object might suggest something else is going on in their repeated dismissals of their designated girl objects, but the film merely lets that motion simmer, without elaboration). The costs of continuous war are made plain enough: John is so mad that he behaves like a terminator, relentless and always inclined to the kill-em-all option. By the same token, Marcus has a heart, in the sense of a nuanced morality and abject sentimentality, as well as in the sense of a muscle. It’s too much to say that Marcus undergoes a transformation in Salvation, as no one here is granted that much complexity, but he is the film’s most intriguing possibility, certainly more charismatic and appealing than John. Muttering and woeful throughout the proceedings, John is less the legacy of Sarah Connor (the Mother of the Future, as she once complained) than the emblem of her loss.